Review: Just So Happens by Fumio Obata

Just So Happens cover

★★★★★

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Buy: Foyles

Fumio Obata’s beautiful, engaging graphic novel explores ideas of expatriatism, cultural tradition and parental obligation.

The protagonist is Yumiko, a young Japanese woman who has settled in London. Sometimes she finds the city harsh, but has come to find comfort and excitement in its bustling, cosmopolitan atmosphere.

The initial images in the book show details of her London life – a cup of tea and a copy of OK magazine, busy streets and fast-moving, sketchy faces. Yumiko remarks on her first impressions of the city: “I was excited.. being among those different lives… lives with different roots and cultures.”

She also has an English boyfriend, Mark, who is as yet a secret from her family for he represents the decreasing chances of her ever returning home permanently. Her conversations with him are illuminating in terms of the sweetness and humour inherent in their relationship, as well as observations about cultural differences.

Suddenly everything changes for Yumiko when she receives a phone call at work telling her that her father has been killed in a mountaineering accident. She must return home for the funeral.

On the plane she remembers the last time she went back to Japan, amid the unbearable humidity of summer. This flashback frames the estranged relationship between her parents.

Yumiko might expect to experience more familiarity on returning to Japan, but instead she feels distanced from its traditions and conservative society. She sees parallels between a theatrical Noh performance and her father’s funeral. The funeral package appalls her, the businesslike manner in which tradition is sold to the relatives of the deceased.

The artwork is stunning – watercolours rendered in an intricate yet understated style. The artistic reference points are both European and Japanese, which seems apt given the themes of the book. The characters are depicted in a style reminiscent of western animation combined with a manga influence, while the latter is also evident in Obata’s atmospheric depiction of the Tokyo streets.

Just So Happens is a very beautiful book which elicits sympathy for the believable protagonist while dealing with issues of globalisation and cultural identity. The expertly-told narrative and immersive atmosphere mean it could be read in one sitting, though at the expense of savouring the exquisite artwork. The challenge lies in trying to make it last.

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